19th December 1999

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Why 2K?

Beware of Y2K viruses riding the Millennium wave

By Delon Weerasinghe

Remember the Chernobyl virus scare sometime ago? If you don't offhand, let me just refresh your memory - it's the virus, and the massive computer shutdown that ensued which crippled many companies. That, really, was the first time we got an idea of how reliant our local companies and businesses have become on computers.

But really, the Chernobyl episode could easily have been avoided if computer operators and network administrators had been alert to all the warnings that were going round weeks before the episode and had downloaded the free virus scan updates. And when it comes to making sure that you have a working system to return to after the big Y2K party, it's going to be the same situation.

First things first - the famous millennium bug isn't a virus. It's a problem (only affecting PC's) with how computers handle information about dates. But that has been explained to death, and where it matters (hospitals, airports, banks, etc...) it has been fixed to a large extent. What we are not prepared for are the Y2K viruses that will ride the wave of hype and expectation of trouble on the 1st of January.

Let me put this to you through an example - it's like election candidates showing up at any event getting media attention at the time, in search of some cheap publicity. The whole world has been so brainwashed by the prophets of Y2K doom that many of us almost expect some major catastrophe somewhere on the dawn of the new millennium. As a result, many news organizations like CNN have planned 24-hour coverage of Y2K events from around the world. What better way to grab the global spotlight if you were a virus-writer wanting some attention?

What many people don't know is that just like terrorist groups fighting for obscure causes, there are radical virus groups, faceless and untraceable in cyberspace, carrying on their own personal crusades. What these groups crave more than anything else is a voice. And they believe that the best way they can get it, is to create a high profile for themselves. And the millennium bug has given them the biggest opportunity they will come across in their lifetimes.

The millennium bug is the perfect disguise for a virus. A computer infected by the opportunistic virus would automatically cast suspicion on the bug. While you are looking in the wrong place for the cause of the problem, it will give the virus enough time to do its deadly work. Also this detection problem will slow down the global virus warning systems in place to spread the word about outbreaks of viruses.

The first wave of Y2K emulating viruses have already started infecting computers around the world. But knowing the speed at which viruses travel around the world, it's the ones that will come out closer to the ominous date (1.1.2000) that will pose the biggest problems. At least given a reasonable amount of time anti-virus program makers can come up with a fix before it causes any damage, but a virus arriving on the scene giving almost no time to fix the problem could mean catastrophe.

So what do we do? Well, I don't know about you, but I'm going to be downloading the latest update for my virus scan program and putting my computer on "scan" before heading for my millennium party.

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